Union members in unprecedented numbers are standing for election to Minnesota statewide offices this fall. A running tally kept by Minnesota AFL-CIO showed 43 union members on ballots around the state as of Aug. 23, with another five or so possible. Bidding for election to Minnesota House and Senate seats are men and women who belong to teamster, laborers, carpenters, teachers, nurses, electricians, machinists, roofers and service-worker unions.
“I’d say it’s the most ever,” said Minnesota AFL-CIO Legislative and Political Director Brad Lehto. “In the last election, the number was in the 30s, I would say.”
Union representation in the Minnesota state house has been growing, Lehto said. “Right now, we have 17 in the Legislature who are union members, and it was probably 12 or 13 before the last election.
“I’d be surprised if we don’t get into the 20s, this time, even 25 or better. I think that’s going to encourage other people to run, as well.”
What will more union members in government get us? Better understanding of how life goes for the rest of us, Lehto thinks.
“There are a lot of people who say they understand working people’s issues, and some do,” he said. “But the fact is, unless you’ve been a union member or been on the picket line, or been without a paycheck because of a strike – unless you’ve gone through that, you really don’t understand.”
Unions have provided a lot of support for people who aren’t members, and have received good service in return. But there’s a difference. “They are very good, but they don’t necessarily understand what it means to deal with intimidation at work and that sort of thing,” Lehto said.
Why are so many union members suddenly ready to move beyond traditional sidelines support for traditional candidates and throw their own hats into the ring? Some say they’re fed up with the actions – and inaction – of current legislators. Some have been working toward this goal for years. And some have gotten a boost from candidate and activist training provided by Wellstone Action, the program established as a memorial to the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his family.
Glenn Resman, apprenticeship coordinator for Laborers Local 563, is seeking election in Senate District 16, an area that covers Mille Lacs and parts of Sherburne, Benton and Morrison counties. He said he decided to run after completing a three-day Wellstone Action training program in Minneapolis last January.
“I’m not naturally outgoing,” Resman said in a phone interview in late August. “Similar to what some people talk about having a calling for religion, I felt I had a calling to get involved in politics. People are ready for a change. That’s what I put on my literature.
“The main reason was that I saw so many things that were going the wrong direction, that I needed to get involved. Everything from the high cost of health care in Minnesota to the way there have been huge cuts in funding for education, resulting in higher class size.
“I live outside the Twin Cities. Our roads and bridges are getting in worse shape, and the money is not coming back to Greater Minnesota for fixing them.”
Out door-knocking, Resman said, he tells people that he is DFL-endorsed and a union candidate. The reaction is usually good. “They say, ‘Okay, you’ve got my vote.’ There have been very few instances where it’s been a negative reaction.”
Wes Urevig, a member of IBEW Local 343, also is running for office for the first time. A Rochester resident, he is seeking election to House District 29A. He did not attend a Wellstone Action training.
Urevig is president of the Southeast Minnesota Building and Construction Trades. He is also a Vice President of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades.
Urevig said he got into the race because he wanted to work on education, health care costs and good jobs. He’s knocked on more than 2,000 doors so far, he said, and what he hears from people are that they’re worried about education, health care and good jobs. “So I know my issues are on track.”
“My feeling is there are too many business interests injecting their philosophy on how quality of life in Minnesota should be.” He said he sees “a big move to unseat the incumbents – throw the incumbent out.”
Union members have a big advantage in running for office, once they decide to start using it. “I think they have a grassroots organizing capability that the Republicans don’t necessarily have access to,” he said.
And they’re motivated. “I think a lot of the union members are much more educated in politics now than they were in the past. They’re really realizing how it affects their daily lives. Things they worked for for years can be erased with the stroke of a pen at the legislative level.”
Running for election in House District 64A is Erin Murphy, a registered nurse and executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association. Murphy said she had participated in a Camp Wellstone training for nurses, but not a specific candidate training. “It was very helpful,” she said, “extremely helpful.”
Murphy grew up in a union family in Janesville, Wis. Her dad worked on an assembly line, and the entire family talked politics and worked on campaigns. This time, she’s working on her own campaign. She’s going to win, she said.
“I decided to run because I became frustrated, like many of my union brothers and sisters, by the lack of investment in Minnesota,” Murphy said. “It’s become very clear that what I feel about the failings in health care, environmentalists are feeling about the environment – a failure to address the future. We’re just treading water, and that hasn’t been Minnesota’s tradition.”
At Wellstone Action, the growing number of union members running for office is seen as a significant and lasting change in how unions participate in politics. Erik Peterson, Wellstone Action director of labor programs, said the coming election looks to him like “the beginning of a shift in the way labor sees its power.”
“For years and years, they saw their power as being a lever on those in power, which is something you can do when you have 30 percent union density and when 50 percent of households are union households,” Peterson said in an Aug. 18 interview.
But unions no longer can claim those numbers. “I think with declining union density, there’s also a realization that if we are to build union power in this country, we have to become decision-makers.”
Peterson said that over the past five to 10 years, he’s seen this shift in attitude. “The infrastructure is just getting into place now. The problem is that there’s no institutional support, outside of the work we’re putting together, to train union folks to run for office and speak to a broader office.”
Unions have done a good job of mobilizing members to vote for pro-worker candidates, Peterson said, but they need to start encouraging and training individual members to organize their own campaigns. “I think it’s critical,” he said. “I think it’s one of the missing pieces, in terms of looking at labor as an overall political program.”
Lehto said the Minnesota AFL-CIO does indeed plan to invest more effort in training its own members to run for office. “I think we need to start in the off-year and do that,” he said.
Peterson said that union members who run for office probably do encounter occasional hostility from a populace that has been encouraged to view unions as just another “special interest.” He added with dark humor that the same standard never seems to apply to lawyers or members of the chamber of commerce.
“I think that’s the biggest hurdle, that they’re seen as a narrow special interest,” he said. “That’s one of the key reasons for doing the (Wellstone Action) training, to teach people to talk about a broader worker agenda, so that it’s not just a union agenda. With 8.5 percent of the population represented by the unions, the rest of the population has to see themselves in that or they won’t buy it.”
Wellstone Action will be investing more work in training union members to run for office, Peterson said, partly because they would be great at making public policy.
“The folks I deal with every day in labor are a whole lot more connected with their community and are more ‘with it’ than other people,” he said. “They bring an understanding of what it means to make ends meet today.”
“I think what union members bring that regular workers don’t is that the power of collective action can actually improve your life. There’s such a missing piece in politics right now that believes that, as collective action, we can make things better. And that’s what unions do.”